“I went out after a Christmas tree and some laurel, through seas of mud,” Jervis McEntee of Kingston wrote on Christmas Eve 1881, “to the place where I always go on the cross road between the Flat-bush and Pine bush roads. It rained a part of the time and turned into a snow storm on our return.”
Another year, McEntee’s usual places for a tree were so wet that he settled for a small hemlock on the side of the hill where he lived. It was a hill that offered a panoramic view of the entire village as well as the Rondout Creek and the Hudson River. His father James, an engineer who had helped build the nearby Delaware and Hudson Canal, had built the first house on the hill and the family still lived there.
I happen to live on the McEntee family’s hill. If my family had moved to West Chestnut Street in Kingston, New York in 1872 instead of 1972, the McEntees would have been our neighbors. Because Jervis McEntee kept a journal from 1872 through 1890, I have learned something about how they lived and lately I’ve been reading about how they spent Christmas.
A highly regarded landscape painter and a member of what came to be called the Hudson River School, Jervis McEntee spent half the year in his New York City studio where he painted and showed his work to potential buyers. For the warmer half of the year, he came home to the family homestead in the Village of Rondout, New York (which in 1872 became part of the City of Kingston). But he also came home on some weekends and holidays and always for Christmas.
Toward the later years of his journal, Jervis sometimes didn’t arrive home by train until Christmas eve. “Went home by 11 o’clock train,” he wrote on Christmas eve of 1887. “Found Sara and Marion had the Xmas tree up in the sitting room and all ready except the things I bought and the candles.” We know from a sketch of the Christmas tree that Jervis painted one year that there were candles on the tree. The candles were lit in the late afternoon or early evening just before festivities began.
Perhaps like other households then and now, the perfect place for the Christmas tree seemed to vary from year to year. On Christmas eve of 1878, Jervis wrote “I trimmed the parlor and put up the Christmas tree. The room looked very festive and pretty and in the evening [the tree] was lighted and all the household came in to see it.” In other years, the tree was set up in the sitting room.
The members of the household included, until the late 1880s, Jervis’s parents, James and Sarah. Jervis’s sister Sara, a medical practitioner, was always home. Jervis’s other sisters – Mary, Augusta, and Lucy – were married and living elsewhere during the years of the journal. Jervis’s brother Maurice was home, working as a local newspaper reporter. Jervis’s much younger brother Girard and his wife Mary had built a house across the street and much of Christmas involved their children.- Jimmie, Dwighty, Girard, Jr. and baby Florence whom Jervis one year described as “a little girl baby who squalled all the time.” There were also Tom, a hired man, and one or two young servant girls.
In most years, Girard and Mary brought their children over to the homestead house for the tree lighting and present opening. Stockings filled with presents had also been hung by the fireplace in the dining room.
“The children had been told we would have all ready at 5 o’clock,” wrote Jervis on December 24, 1887. “They of course came over before and had to be kept in the dining room like a lot of little wild animals. At 5, we let them in and while we were looking at the tree, bells were heard out in front of the house and a shouting and a stamping and we cried out ‘here he comes.’ It was very interesting to see the expression of Girard [Jr.] and Dwightie. Presently Girard bounded in as Santa Claus in a buffalo robe, a good big belly, a cotton beard and a bundle of new India rubber boots on his back. His make-up was excellent and he did his part well and finally shot out in a most mysterious manner. Then we distributed the presents and blew out the lights and the children all having gone home we took the tree out on the back porch, and thus another Xmas ended, as so many previous ones have ended under this dear roof of home.”
On Christmas day, Jervis and the other members of the James and Sarah McEntee household often went across the street to see Girard and Mary’s children open more presents. It was also a day for visiting cousins and neighbors. They sometimes dined with the family of Jervis’s Uncle Charles. For several years, their neighbors, Charles and Mary Cantine sent roses to the senior McEntees and another prominent citizen, Mary Coykendall, sent a basket of fruit. In various years, calls were exchanged with the Lindsleys, Mrs. Dewitt Roosa, and Miss Sadie Crosby. On the day after Christmas of 1884, Jervis wrote that “Marion [his niece] and Miss Sadie Crosby went for a sleigh ride but found it very cold.”
Sleigh rides were very popular with the McEntees, who kept one or two horses in their barn and a large sleigh and a small, two-person cutter sleigh in their carriage house. Jervis himself was given to long walks and on Christmas eve of 1882, he found time for “a long walk after breakfast with [the family dog] Park, down through the woods back of the old Wilhelmus Hasbrouck house and over the hills stopping for a sketch, then down through the woods behind the Roatina, returning by the road across the lake and over the hill toward the Alms House and home by Ludlum’s Woods.”
That was Christmas on my street over one hundred and thirty years ago. The McEntees have long since departed the town; their homestead is now a subdivision. Jervis McEntees’ word pictures, however, live on for those who can discover them and, as we get ready to go out for this year’s tree, I think about the McEntees and wonder if “the cross road between Flat-bush and Pine bush roads” is still there.
Photos: Above, Jervis McEntee’s “Christmas in the Catskills, 1867” (with the permission of Matthew and Maria Brown); and below, Napoleon Sarony’s photograph of Jervis McEntee (c. 1867), courtesy The Century Association.
This essay first appeared on the New York History Blog on Dec. 29, 2015.